It is a bright Friday morning as we set out for a safari game drive around Akagera National Park. Daniel Nishimwe will be our guide for the safari game drive. Nishimwe is the chairman of Community Freelance Guides at the Akagera National Park, a new community-based group that provides guiding services at the park to supplement efforts of the official park guides.
Nishimwe informs us that the Community Freelance Guides initiative was launched in April 2014 to provide guiding services and mobilise communities around the park to support conservation efforts.
He says the 22-member strong team has helped increase awareness on the importance of conservation among communities neighbouring the park. He notes that some have also gained financially from the initiative.
“A number of residents have benefitted directly by offering professional guiding services to tourists on safari game drives for $30 (about Rwf22,700) a day. Others, including returning refugees and Genocide survivors, benefit indirectly from the social programmes designed by the Community Freelance Guides co-operative since helping the poor is also one of our goals,” Nishimwe explains.
He adds that the co-operative is currently building a house for a family of returnees from Tanzania.
“This was our first humanitarian project…we always aim to contribute to the well-being of our community.”
He explains that the co-operative members always come together and assess the needs of their communities and the amount of money required to implement humanitarian projects based on those needs.
“Finally, after reaching a consensus, we deduct an equal amount of money from our respective salaries to raise the required funds,” Nishimwe explains.
In May, the Community Freelance Guides members undertook their second humanitarian project: a Rwf120,000 financial support for Genocide survivors.
“We want to start community tourism activities soon, taking the tourists to our villages, showing them traditional ways of life. However, starting from next month, we will organise fence walking tours in buffer zones… We will organise walking trails of about 12 kilometres. Visitors will be able to see local farms bordering the park, learn about crops and farming methods, and see animals, too,” the co-operative chairman says, projecting a positive outlook for the future.
The group is the brainchild of Akagera National Park management as there was huge demand for guides
The park resolved to employ community members as freelance guides, offering them the same training as the official park guides.
Realising that their strength lay in their numbers, the guides then decided to form a co-operative of freelance community guides. That’s where they learnt about conservation.
They also teach about conservation efforts within their communities as they now understand the value of protecting nature and wildlife.
The guides do not have a specialty and offer the same services as official park guides. They charge $30 for a day.
The growth of tourism at the park means more and more opportunities that will help improve their living standards and community wellbeing generally.
Members of the co-operative come from villages spread across the three districts bordering the park. The group started with 12 guides.
Working as freelance guides allows them to have a more flexible schedule to do other things on the side, especially when there is low demand.
The group is also unique, besides fair fees for their services, in that they work for a cause.
“And, for travellers, by opting for community guides to show them around, they support community empowerment and local development initiatives at the same time,” Nishimwe notes.
Akagera National Park is managed by African Parks under a public-private partnership with the Rwanda Development Board following the signing of a 20-year management agreement five years ago. The firm is responsible for law enforcement, tourism, conservation, community engagement and infrastructure development.
According to Sarah Hall, the Akagera NP marketing and tourism development manager, the number of tourists visiting the park has increased by over 85 per cent in the past five years, from around 15,000 visitors in 2010 to 28,000 in 2015. Revenue has increase 5-fold, to just over $1 million last year.
“Ruzizi Tented Lodge is a big contributor to the park revenue, but 100 per cent of the profits from the lodge go back into the management of the park.
“We are going to open a 12-bed bush camp this month called Karenge, meaning ‘little foot’. This is the name of the area where the camp is set up, however, it also resonates with our aim to leave a light footprint,” he says. The camp will be seasonal, open for just the peak season months twice a year, and will change location each time,” she explains.
“After the reintroduction of lions into the park recently, we hope to reintroduce black rhinos, too, next year. This will make Akagera a Big Five park.
“When this happens, it will be the only Big Five park that also hosts the shoebill – a stork-like bird, which is highly sought after by keen birders,” said Hall.
The Community Freelance Guides story demonstrates the strong values and principles the guides adhere to, and how resourceful they are in terms of organising themselves in an efficient way.
Since the lions’ return, the Akagera park is expecting an increased demand for guiding services to the delight of the group. When you visit the park, make sure to ask a community freelance guide to accompany you around the park.